The black box was despatched by pony cart first thing in the morning along with all their personal luggage. Rose Drynan did not think much of their plan to visit Dunalla; it was no place for either of them now, especially for the stranger at heart. Since they insisted, she packed a huge hamper of food and poteen for Bridget; it would help to see her through the winter. The carrier was to let her know what to expect; there were instructions for Owen and Maureen; at least there could be a fire on the hearth to welcome the guests.
After a leisurely breakfast, Nick and Caroline set out. On their fine horses they looked a handsome pair and a rare sight in this part of the world. At every clachan they passed, people came out of their cabins to greet and stare an eyeful. If Nick put the fear of God in them, Caroline evoked their blessings; if God and the devil had a tryst to duel on that fine morning, then they were equally supported.
They took the journey at an easy pace, sometimes riding side-by-side where they could converse. The country was familiar to Caroline who pointed out any features of interest. She entertained him with old stories, snatches of rhyme, old airs hummed or whistled. Beguiled by what he would have called her “childish prattle”, Nick was in a most amiable mood. On one or two occasions he burst into song himself. She had never seen him so at ease which comforted her, for she had had some doubts about taking him to Dunalla.
At the turning that led down to the obscure quay where, a year earlier, she had watched the swift sailing ship bear Fergal from her, she fell silent. She remembered that the gold band no longer caressed her thigh; a momentary panic seized her.
“So I am soon to see your home, my darling Caroline,” Nick said, to break the silence. “What is it like?”
“It's like the old tower at Castle Ballinmore ..... but larger and in better repair. Oh Nick, I'm not sure that you’ll like it. Maybe we shouldn't have come.”
“Of course we should. I simply must see where you came from on that night when you appeared out of the shadows at Ardcullen. I declare if I don't see a real building, I shall believe you rose from the sea ..... that you are a mermaid.”
“I am no mermaid, though I was born at sea. Dunalla is real and very solid. It has stood for hundreds of years. There was some fire damage, but it did not harm the walls.”
“I'll wager it is sounder than our relic. It is a most frightful place.”
“One day I should like to explore it.”
“That you shall not ..... ever ..... my dearest wife. It is haunted.”
“I am not scared of ghosts,” she said with a merry laugh, “tell me about them.”
“There are several stories about the tower. The favourite is the tale of Lady Adeline. She was the flighty daughter of an Irish chieftain. When old Lord Wantchester made her his third wife there was much headshaking. Soon he began to suspect her fidelity. He set a watch on her. One night she was discovered in the arms of her rebel lover under the ancient oak tree down by the lake. His lordship vowed that never again would she walk abroad in the full of the moon ..... nor in the dark. He immured her in the tower with one servant to wait on her needs.”
“Not so horrible. She deserved it. Anyway, she was quite comfortable. The tower was sound, dry and warm then and I understand the apartments were adequately furnished. Short of liberation, her every whim was appeased. She might have lived to a ripe old age, but .....”
“What, Nick, what happened?”
“Lord Wantchester still had suspicions. When the castle was attacked one night, he swore that she had been seen signalling from the window of her chamber. The last thing he did was to have her hanged from the battlements in full view of the attackers .…. including her lover, no doubt. They withdrew, but Lord Wantchester never recovered from the shock. He died soon after. The castle was sold to my ancestor who rebuilt and enlarged the mansion. He retained Lady Adeline's tower as a curiosity.”
“Then the tower really has a ghost,” Caroline murmured, her face deathly white.
“Of course it has. What respectable ruin in this superstitious country has not a ghost? Lady Adeline walks her chamber in the dark of the moon. She scared the servants so much that my father had the tower locked up.”
“I’d like to see inside. It would take something more fearsome than Lady Adeline's ghost to frighten me.”
“There is something more fearsome, Caroline my love. There is Ninny ….. that is what we call her .…. a crazy old deaf mute. She is almost certainly a witch. She has no love of beautiful young women. What if she should harm you? Oh no!”
“Ha Nick, you think to scare me. Do you think I would fear a crazy old woman? How weak you must think me. There must be something more fearsome than an ancient deaf mute?”
“There is, Caroline, my dearest. The tower itself is more fearsome. It has not been used for decades; it has fallen into disrepair; the timbers are rotted, the masonry is crumbling. It swarms with huge rats. It is a most perilous place. You must not venture there. For my sake do not risk your life. Nothing untoward must happen to my beloved wife ..... my child.”
“My child.” The words brought her back to earth. Even at this moment she might be with child. What had Gwen said about ‘land and lineage’? Was that the sole root of his love and concern? The very thought was like the clang of a raised drawbridge.
“I will take care,” she said solemnly, careful to promise nothing.
They were nearing their destination. Already they had reached the shade of Ardcullen’s trees and little gusts of wind blew the golden leaves in a shower about them. Nick Marsmain's thoughts turned to another September when first they met.
“It was fate,” he said, “I don't put much store by fate, as a rule.”
As they rode on sedately, fate stalked
their way on a strong bay horse, out of earshot and undiscovered. The salt of
the sea air stung their nostrils. The landscape rose bare and rocky. The
“What do you think of it?” Caroline asked as they approached.
“It’s a grim place.”
“But it has no ghosts.”
“What about the ghostly chieftain?”
“No friend need fear him, Nick”.
She had never really thought of the chieftain as a ghost; now he loomed ominously, a grey wraith as old as the time-scarred walls and as enduring. She remembered Bridget's words, how they seemed of no consequence at the time, how they had been fulfilled when Aunt Millicent had died. But then she saw Owen by the crumbling gateway, old as the walls it seemed and as faithful. She dismounted and handed him her reins. He would take care of the horses. The door was flung wide and Maureen came out to meet them. The two girls embraced like sisters. Marsmain stood back, frowning. This familiarity with servants was not to his pleasure. He must have a word with Caroline later.
“Welcome to the Fort of the Swan ..... Dunalla!” Caroline said, beckoning him to enter. “You need not fear the Murtherin' Hole; it hasn't been used for ages.” He passed uneasily under the hole, now blocked up, where the trap door had been and the watchers ready to hurl lethal rocks on the unwelcome stranger's head. To him, the gloom within, was sepulchral, the air chilly as the grave.
“However did you live here, my darling Caroline? Weren’t you scared?” he asked, wondering at the strange joy in her expression as though she had really come home.
“I told you I was not afraid of ghosts,” she replied nonchalantly, “not even old Mac Tire's. There he is as magnificent as ever. My father's joke.” The stuffed wolf stood poised ready to spring, its jaws open in a menacing grin, its fangs bared. Marsmain stared at it, entranced.
“A strange joke in truth, but I like it,” he said, thoughtfully, “I wonder what sort of man .....”
A door opened at the rear of the apartment. This was no joke; if it was, he did not like it at all. Bridget had grown thinner, more wrinkled, her hair whiter; it fell over her shoulders like a smoke-streaked shawl. A witch without doubt. She fixed him with deep-set eyes, sharp as gimlets. How could Caroline touch such a creature, and yet there she was hugging this apparition with the eager fervour of a child returned to its mother.
“This is Nick,” she said, “Colonel Marsmain now. We were wed but two days ago.”
To his relief Bridget made no move towards him. From her stance in the doorway she swept him a swift curtsey. There was a hint of mockery in the gesture, or was it menace? He had never in his life felt so stripped of all self-assurance.
“Then tis welcome you are as far as I'm concerned?” Bridget croaked, “welcome for Miss Caroline's sake. For your own, I think you'd have been as well to stay away.”
“Why do you say so?”
“This oul' tower has its own memories ..... its own grievances ..... you'd never know what umbrage the spirits of the past would take. Mind yourself, sir, that's all I have to say.” The door closed as abruptly as it had opened.
“Pay no heed to my granny,” Maureen said, reassuringly, “she talks wild these days. It's livin' more in the past she is every day.”
“Come Nick,” Caroline invited, “let me show you over our mansion. “There will be something to eat later ..... eh Maureen?”
She showed him every interior inch of the old tower. It was all much as she had left it the night they drove south to this destiny ..... all much the same, but dingier, colder and more dank. And how small the great hall where she had dined with Aunt Millicent! A fire kindled on its hearth was the only spot of comfort. Above the mantel the colours in the mural began to glow, but it seemed that their brilliance had faded. The picture looked crude, unnatural and curiously lifeless. It seemed that she had sucked the life out of it and made it her own. Above in the solarium, where Turlough and his bride had slept and Aunt Millicent had precipitated her own death, they surveyed the fire damage. Only the walls stood intact; the furnishings were totally wrecked and charred.
“This,” she said with a smile, “is the bridal chamber.”
“It shall not be ours, Caroline. There is nowhere anyone could rest in comfort in this ruin. We must go. It is a long way to Castle Ballinmore.”
“Let us go outside and see everything ..... the beach,” she said, turning away so that he could not see the tears in her eyes. That it had upset her he could see. She needed comforting, but something deterred him from taking her in his arms. In this bewitched ruin, she was remote, beyond his power or his caresses.
He followed her down the spiral stair and out into the bawn. There they found Owen attending to the horses; he looked perfectly normal and very pleased with his work; the horses munched their oats, not caring for anything but their own gratification. In the coach-house, the splendid, blue-green enamelled vehicle stood polished and pristine from many an hour of Owen's tender care. The sight lifted Caroline's spirits.
“We'll take it,” she said, “and drive home in style. There's nobody here to use it. You wouldn't mind, Owen?”
“Never a mind would I, Miss Caroline. Sure it's yours, if it's anyone’s.”
A savoury smell greeted them as they re-entered the tower. The table in the great hall was spread with all Maureen could contrive supplemented by some of the food Aunt Rose had sent over. The silver was laid out and the candles lit in their sconces, the fire blazed brightly on the hearth. The carved masks winked fiendishly in its flickering light.
Heartened by the warmer appearance of the room, hungry for the food, Marsmain made haste to the table. From a bowl of steaming punch which Maureen had brought from below just minutes before, he ladled a generous gobletful. Handing one goblet to Caroline and filling another for himself, he raised the toast:
“To us, my darling wife, and to hell with all spooks, goblins, witches and malevolent spirits.”
She sipped the punch and he watched the warmth flood into her face. Gratified, he drank deeply and refilled his goblet. He was master of the occasion and Caroline, who had become a wraith since she entered this ghastly place, would be warm and loving again, and he would take her in his arms ..... meantime, perish all disquieting thoughts. He would show the ghosts who was master. It did occur to Caroline to warn him. Ready for the meal which must be due at any moment, he seated himself where he felt he had a right to sit ..... at the head of the table.
“Come, sit down, my darling,” he said, seeing how she hesitated and grew pale.
“Please, Nick, please,” she cried out in distress, “don’t sit in the chieftain's chair! I told you the story.”
“A fig for the story. I defy such superstition.”
“So did Aunt Millicent. Oh, please, Nick, to please me.”
He rose reluctantly, his face darkening with annoyance. Picking up his punch, he drank a long draught and took up his stance, back to the fire. The heat was too great. He moved to the left hand side out of the full draught.
“Very well where shall I sit?” he asked impatiently. But it was too late. Caroline was changing before his eyes. She trembled and her face grew a ghastly pale. The goblet slipped from her hands and the red wine spread like blood across the floor.
“The Bloody Stone ..... the Cursing Stone of the O'Shaughnessys! When the stranger stands .....”
From below, from the very bowels of the earth it seemed, a shriek arose. Spine chilling at first, it crescended to a wild, unearthly shrillness that seemed to permeate the walls and set the candle flames shivering. With a thud, Caroline fell to the floor among the shattered glass. Her blood from minute gashes mingled with the wine.
Immediately the shriek died, Maureen appeared, followed by Owen. It was they who lifted Caroline and bore her away to her own bed by the slit window, where the harvest moon peered in. When Maureen had stanched the bleeding and bound up her hands, she took her seat beside Caroline, watching, waiting for the return of consciousness. Sometime towards dawn, Caroline woke. Before the great peace descended on her again, she knew she must ask a question.
“Why did you do it, Maureen?”
“There was nothing else I could do, Miss Caroline. I didn't want to see you made a widow so soon.”
“’Twas Conn Drynan, an' he like a madman. Dressed in the rig of a militiaman an' all he was ..... an’ a fearsome lookin' gun in his han'. There was no other way I could turn him. You'd laugh, Miss Caroline, if you saw him runnin’ from the screech of the banshee.”
Caroline fell asleep then, and woke to the dream of the morning light falling across her bed as it always used to. All that had befallen her since the night she took flight by the stepping stones had disappeared. Somewhere in the tower, Fergal was waiting for her, or maybe out in the bawn.
There was a handsome man waiting for her all right. She leaned out of her window and, like the lady in the picture, let her bronze-gold hair fall in a shimmering wave.
“Nick,” she called, “I'll be with you in a minute.”
“Make haste, my love. We must be going at once. Owen is harnessing the horses.”
“Where did you sleep?”
“With Mac Tire ..... your father's joke.”
He looked haggard and ill at ease after a night spent in the entrance hall on a shake-down of hay. The wolf watched over him; he could not see its vindictive snarl in the darkness. For the first time in many years, the great door was locked and bolted.